What people in other countries need (and what we think they need)

file0002132358706Last week I wrote a post showing similarities between Undercover Boss and short-term mission trips. I want to follow that up with some comments about how we go about determining what people in other countries need.

When we see people in developing nations that lack so many things that we consider essential, we are moved to help. That compassion is a good thing, but it needs a bit of discernment along with it. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have done much work in this area; they have a website (and book) called When Helping Hurts. I won’t pretend to address this topic in the depth that they do, but I do want to share some personal observations.

First, a couple of examples that I’ve mentioned before. One I saw in the church in Córdoba, Argentina, where I used to live. The church has done an excellent job over the last few years of updating their worship space, creating a lovely setting for meeting together. The preacher is quite technologically adept and has begun using a projector on a regular basis. I went to visit and saw that they were projecting on a tiny screen, something like 3×4. This was puzzling to me, since the wall they were projecting toward was white and perfectly flat. It was a perfect space for projections. “Why are you using that screen instead of just projecting on the wall?,” I asked. The answer: “Some Americans gave us this screen, and we thought we should honor their gift by using it.”

The other story was one that was told me in Cuba a few years ago:

“We were quite happy, everyone providing their own cup for the Lord’s Supper. Then a brother from the States brought us communion trays, without asking. Now we have to find ways to get cups from the States.”

Sometimes, when we go to other countries, we create a need that they didn’t have before. I saw the newsletter of someone who had been to Cuba. He had a list of things “the Cubans are asking for.” It was a strange list, bearing little relation to what I’d heard from the mouths of Cubans. I asked the man, and he said, “I asked them if they wanted some baptismal garments. They said yes.” Same with sewing machines and little audio devices to listen to the Bible. That’s how he came up with his list of things “they were asking for.”

In a similar way, I was at a conference in Alabama where Ammiel Perez, preacher from Havana, was present. One brother showed him some solar-powered devices with teaching materials recorded on them. The devices cost $500 each. The man asked Ammiel if they would be useful in Cuba, and Ammiel said sure. Later I asked Ammiel, “If someone has $5000 to help the church in Cuba, do you want them buying 10 of those devices?” Ammiel said, “No way! We have much bigger needs.”

One principle that we need to keep in mind is the principle of relative deprivation. It’s the idea of wanting something because others have it. You don’t feel the need unless you see that others have something you don’t. My uncle talked about growing up poor. He said, “All we had to eat was beans and cornbread. But everyone around us was eating beans and cornbread, so we didn’t know we were poor.”

When we go to another country with our new smartphone and ask someone in that country if they’d like one, they’re probably going to say yes. Now they’re hoping to get a smartphone, where they might not have seen one before. (That may be a bad example. One friend in Cuba who is a tour guide told us about a condescending tourist who pulled an old cellphone out of her pocket and asked, “Do you even know what this is?” My friend’s colleague whipped out his smartphone and said, “Well THIS is a telephone… I’m not sure what that piece of junk is.”)

But if you ask someone, “Do you need one of these?”, they’re probably going to say yes, even if they don’t really need it. Just don’t go around saying, “Our brothers are asking for these.”

Years ago, the U.S. government established the Alliance for Progress to work with Latin America. In Spanish, that’s “La Alianza Para El Progreso.” It makes for a funny play on words, because “para” can also be a form of the verb to stop. That makes it “The Alliance Stops Progress.” Many Latin Americans felt that’s exactly what happened. While they were trying to keep children from dying from diarrhea, their hospitals received advanced cancer treatment machines costing tens of thousands of dollars. Millions of dollars of aid came in, but little was in the form that was really needed.

Have a heart to help. But have ears to listen and eyes to see. Go and be a learner. See what they’re real needs are before making your shopping list and writing your appeal letters. You might be surprised.

One closing thought. Tony Fernández in Cuba often repeats something he told me the first time I went: “What we really need in Cuba isn’t money. Our greatest need is understanding.”

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com

How missions trips are like Undercover Boss

Money in handI like the show Undercover Boss. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a “reality” show based on an executive in a company assuming a disguise and going to work at different jobs within the company. At the end of the show, the boss reveals himself to the people he’s been working with. In most cases, the boss gives impressive gifts and bonuses to the employees in a tear-jerking finale.

In almost every episode, the boss is overwhelmed by the people he meets. They seem like the best workers (or the worst, in rare exceptions). Their needs seem greater, their stories more dramatic. They’ve overcome obstacles and challenges to loyally serve the company.

And you ask yourself: why these employees? Aren’t there hundreds of others with similar stories? Greater needs? More outstanding work? The boss changes the lives of a few that he meets in the course of this show.

Mission trips are a bit like that. We go, and we’re overwhelmed by what we see. The Christians in the other place must be the hardest working Christians on earth. Their work must be the most challenging, yet most rewarding. Their needs are great, yet we can often step in and meet those needs.

And others say: why them? Why that place? Why that need and not this other one?

This is really meant as more observation than criticism. Go. See the works. See the needs. Help where you can. But recognize that what you are seeing is part of God’s work in this world, not the sum of it. Don’t come home telling everyone that all mission funds should go to Mongolia or Ushuaia or Tasmania. Don’t imply that your trip was so much more important than that of someone else.

Don’t try and be the Undercover Boss.

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com

Money as power in missions

3quarter_globeIt happened in Rosario, Argentina. It was 1986 or 1987. One of the Christians came to speak with the missionaries, telling a tale of having been approached by an ex-member that wanted to recruit him for a new congregation.

The ex-member and some of his friends had been in touch with a man who planted churches in South America. Explaining their discontent with the missionaries, they asked for help. The church planter jumped at the chance, offering to send money on a regular basis. The ex-member and his disgruntled friends were to recruit others; those who wanted to be join the new congregation would be expected to sign their agreement with a list of rules, including:

  • Church services would begin on the hour and end on the hour.
  • No one would leave services to go to the bathroom.
  • No prayers would be addressed to “the Lord”; Jesus is the Lord, and prayers are to be addressed to God.
  • And so on. The church planter had many doctrinal differences with the missionaries in Rosario, but the list didn’t focus on those things. It was mainly about church organization.

Naturally the Christians who had written this church planter didn’t mention their struggles with addiction, their open practice of homosexuality and promiscuity, nor other such matters. And he didn’t ask. His interest was to find someone who would accept money for preaching the things that he wanted preached.

How many times have similar scenarios been played out? There is a church in Georgia that prides itself on troubling churches throughout Latin America on the question of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Others have gone out on a mission to promote this doctrine or that. The tool of choice? Money. Pay a preacher and you can tell him what to preach. Or so many seem to think. (To hear another voice on this subject, read “Dollars, doctrine and division inflict more damage on churches than Sandinistas“)

It’s the opposite of what we were talking about yesterday. It’s paternalism, not partnership. Or to put it plainly, it’s sin.

It takes courage to enter into partnership and let local Christians work out their own faith; faith based on Scripture and not on our principles and practices.

Partnering with churches in other countries

3quarter_globePedro Villa made a very good comment on yesterday’s post; I hope you’ll take the time to look at what he had to say.

I’ve talked some about the concept of partnership in terms of local outreach, but it’s a concept that I think needs to be expanded internationally. There is an undeniable shift in today’s world, as belief in Christ shifts southward. We can fight that tendency, or we can work with it. I think a shift in our world perspective can help us see this trend as a very good thing.

Churches in the north (particularly Europe, Canada, and the United States) tend to have more material goods. Churches in the south, at the moment, seem to be showing a greater evangelistic fervor and a better concept of community building within the church. If we let each group provide what it has, both talents and resources, the resulting work can be far greater than either can do alone.

The problem is, our world tends to associate money with power. If you are paying the bills, you feel that you have the right to decide how things will be done. And decide who will get your money. There is a fine line between showing good stewardship and using money to manipulate people.

That’s where partnerships come in. Churches in wealthy areas need to look for churches in less privileged areas that would be willing to work with them. Not be controlled by them. Not be dictated to. Churches to partner with.

This is a healthier model than funding an individual. Our support of preachers has hindered the development of other leaders in many situations. The preachers are beholden to their supporting congregations; they feel no need to listen to the local church. One preacher told a group of us that he had no desire to see elders named in his church; elders, he explained, would want to know about his finances and question how he used his money. That attitude is exactly what has weakened the church in many areas.

The key, as all good leadership, is to find people you can trust, then trust the decisions they make. In missions, that means an acceptance of the fact that they will at times do things differently than we would. Sometimes they’ll be right; sometimes they’ll be wrong. But they are the ones “on the ground,” the ones living out their faith in that context. We can offer advice and guidance, but it must be seen as exactly that. It must never be, “Here’s what you’re going to do or you won’t get any more money from us.”

More thoughts coming on this. I’ll take a breath and listen to your reactions.

Do we treat foreign preachers as well as we treat local preachers?

3quarter_globeSo, you (or your church) has decided to support a native preacher in another country. How much do you know about employer/employer expectations in that country?

“Well, he’s not an employee. He’s more like contract labor.”

Great. Does that concept exist in that country? Are their laws the same on that issue?

“We’re not in that country. We aren’t under their jurisdiction.”

But the church is. Are you setting up the local church for a future law suit? Are you sowing seeds of discord between brothers in the coming years? Are you discrediting the church in the eyes of the local community?

What about health care? No, I don’t mean Obamacare. I mean, what are the basic expectations as far as employer-provided health care in the country you’re wanting to help? While you may not see yourself as an employer, many others may see you that way.

What about retirement? The church has a long history of preachers struggling through their later years in this country; are we exporting that problem? In many countries, retirement is employment-based, much like Social Security. We support someone for twenty or thirty years, never making contributions toward their retirement, then leave them to fend for themselves when they are no longer “useful.”

What about survivor benefits? How many churches do you know that support the widows of native preachers?

I’m not against supporting preachers in other countries. It’s a very good thing in many cases. We just need to remember that it’s not always the bargain that it’s presented to be. We become outraged when we hear of large corporations exploiting foreign workers, outsourcing things because they can pay lower salaries and offer few benefits. Let the church not be guilty of the same sin.

If you’re not willing to treat your foreign ministers as well as your local ones, then you aren’t ready to support foreign preachers. You may not pay them on the same scale, due to differences in cost of living, but you should at least aim for the same proportion. Benefits included.

Or am I off base?